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HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray - What Really Matters

By Art Feierman

I've been trying to avoid the great HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray DVD debate, but after an interesting experience at CEDIA, I figure it's time to weigh in. Warning: I'm defintely not a HD-DVD or Blu-Ray expert, but I have been following the progress.

At this point, I don't believe that the "winner" of this battle is going to be determined by which has the better technology,which has the lower priced recorders (today), which has the most movie studios lined up behind them, or any other of several factors that are usually discussed.

Certainly having two formats will slow down the move from older standard DVDs, but not anywhere near as much as you might think. Actually the formats came to market faster because of the war brewing. HD-DVD had a timing advantage, and rushed the original Toshiba HD-1A to market (and it had problems, there have been at least two upgrades in 4 months (I have a Toshiba).

But that forced Blu-Ray to react. The first Blu-Ray shipped late summer months ahead of prediction, to counter the HD-DVD. Blu-Ray out of the door also isn't fully "ready for prime time" but that's all getting taken care of now.

In fact, I fear we are going to be stuck with both formats. The good news is that I suspect we'll be able to buy a single player, that plays both, next year. But before I expound on that, let me address a few of these points.

Hi-Def DVD: Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD player technologies

Resolution and Storage

On paper most will concede, that at its best, Blu-Ray has the advantage over HD-DVD in technology. Both formats have the info recorded at 1080p, although early HD-DVD players (notably the first - the Toshiba), only offers 1080i output, not 1080p. This is sure to change shortly, with both formats offering 1080p (there are two 1080p formats as well - 1080p 24 frame, and 1080p 60 frame. I will not go into the various aspects of those in this article.

Blu-Ray also has the advantage - that for any given number of recording layers, Blu-Ray can store significantly more data. While this may matter in the PC where you pay more, for more storage (think hard drives), it is at best only a short term issue for home theater enthusiasts.

Why? The theory is that while we are working with early single layer discs or even double layers, the idea is that with Blu-Ray, with the same number of layers, you can store more. That means that you might be able to have a long movie and all the extra DVD goodies on a single disk instead of two. But, it won't be long before, thanks to multi-layers, that both Blu-Ray DVD and HD-DVD will be able to store 6 hours on a single disk. After that, who really cares. Do you really need all three Lord of the Rings, extended edition movies and all the extras, on one disk? I don't really think anyone cares.

Overall image performance - Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD

Let's start by saying so far neither format has put out movies in what promises to be the highest possible performance. With HD-DVD outputting 1080i initially, it can be argued that the straight 1080p will look better, having less artifacts.

Conversely, Blu-Ray, has a short term, bigger problem. Right now, disks have been recorded in an older compression technology, than HD-DVD, and the quality is definitely inferior.

But, again, this is a very short term issue. Sony is starting to ship 2 layer Blu-Ray recordable disks to the industry, and we can expect titles to come out in the newer MPEG4, like most HD-DVD's (I think I have that straight). Ed. note: I have been corrected by a reader, most HD-DVD's are encoded in VC-1 the rest in MPEG4, although I gather performance on both is similar enough for our discussion here.

Once those two things happen- HD-DVD outputting 1080p, and Blu-Ray, continuing to do 1080p, but with a compression technology, the same or virtually identical in performance to HD-DVD, the final product - the movie you plan to watch, should be virtually identical in image quality. Let me finish this thought. I'll call it:

The last 5% of Image Quality - HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray

What is the last 5%. It's what, in this case - really doesn't matter, and that's the point.

Anyone who has watched an HD-DVD, or Blu-Ray movie, compared to the same exact movie on conventional DVD's will concede that the difference between either of the hi-def DVD formats, and the old fashioned DVD, is a drastic, dynamic, humungus, amazing, dazzling and/or truly impressive improvement in image quality. Choose your preferred adjective or three to describe the difference. It may not be quite as great a difference as from conventional TV to HDTV, but it is rather dramatic.

As a result, if you take a typical, well recorded HD-DVD movie, and a similarly well recorded Blu-Ray movie, by the end of 2006, or early 2007, after they have achieved what they are capable of, and compare them to standard DVD, any difference you can spot between the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray DVD, will be insignificant compared to how really lousy standard DVDs will look by comparison. And that's what consumers really want. Movies that look as good as HDTV content (or better), not the "low resolution" conventional DVD with poorer color and overall image quality.

As a result, the consumer just isn't going to care who has an image 5% better than the other, when either are, say 300% better (subjective of course) than standard DVD.

OK, that's enough. We could probably find at least a half dozen technological differences to discuss between these two new formats, but I'll leave that to those who really think those differences will affect the outcome. I don't.

Haven't These Companies learned from previous format wars? Betamax vs. VHS, and highend audio CDs: SACD and DVD-Audio?

The answer is, apparently not, but, once again, it doesn't really matter. I'll discuss now, why that is the case.

I'll start with the easy one:

SACD vs. DVD-Audio

It is put forth that the reason, neither of these formats has caught on, is because of the format war between them. I have to say: "Nonsense".

The reason everyone (with the exception of a few hard core audiophiles) is still buying standard CDs, is that 99+% of the music buying public, doesn't perceive any value in the newer - "audiophile" formats.

Let's face it, CD's while not perfect (the high end hardcore audiophiles out there still spin vinyl records, swearing that the fidelity is still superior to any CD), easily exceed the expectations of the people buying them. Everyone but the hardcore think CD's sound great.

And now, we have millions of folks with iPods, and MP3 players who's sound quality (still digital) is compressed more than CD's and therefore technically and slightly sonically inferior to CDs. Think anyone has noticed? Put in those earbuds, and all your favorite music sounds great.

So, MAYBE if there was only one format, people might have upgraded, but the truth is, there has never been a compelling reason to do so, for the 99% of us who aren't hardcore audiophiles. Those are the same folks who have spent not just thousands, but when they can, tens of thousands of dollars on their stereo system. (Nevermind that today's buying public seemingly would rather have a $500 or $1000 6 speaker surround sound system that plays CDs, but equally important, can work with their big screen, plasma, LCDTV or projector, than spend the same money on a receiver and only two speakers. And of course, you are going to get higher quality, more faithful sound reproduction, from a stereo system than an a surround sound system of the same price - afterall, you only need 2 speakers (and maybe a subwoofer) instead of 5 speakers and a subwoofer, for the same money.

So, in conclusion in the SACD vs DVD-Audio debate, the two formats didn't help, but I believe the fundamental problem is that almost no one cared, almost all people are happy with the current technology. Hey many of you probably never even heard of SACD or DVD-Audio!

This is not true of DVD. Those who have HDTV in their home, and DVD, easily notice that the same movie, or Jay Leno, or football, look far better off of a HDTV feed, than similar content from DVD. Not only are DVD's low resolution compared to HDTV, but HDTV produces far richer colors, with more dynamic range, depth, etc (despite some of the flaws of compression, etc.) If you have a 50" plasma, or LCDTV, or better yet - a projector, the difference in image quality between standard DVD and HDTV (or the new Hi-Def DVDs) is very noticeable.

The Great Betamax vs. VHS VCR wars

This is the most often quoted analogy, to the HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray battle. While there are similarities, there are so many differences, that I really don't think a close analogy is appropriate.

This took place a long, long time ago, and played out very differently. Since I was in the industry at the time, I've got a story to tell, so I put this all on a separate page.

Click here for the conversation at Cedia, and my perspective on the Great Betamax VCR wars.


Price could determine the winner, but in a few more months, there shouldn't be any signficant difference in price.

. Blu-ray technology is newer and fundamentally more expensive, however, this isn't going to be like back in the 70's where it might have taken 5-6 years to sell the first million video recorders. Sony alone will probably ship a half million new Playstation 3's all equipped with Blu-ray players by New Years,, and they are already shipping laptops with the Blu-Ray inside. The point is they will achieve economies of scale in the next few months as more "factories come on line".

HD-DVD is expected to be an option for the X-Box 360.... and the next generation (I think - I don't really follow that). If so, both formats have the ability to produce high volumes. And as soon as you have high volumes you have low prices. If HD-DVD has a big advantage in manufacturing costs at low volumes, that will no doubt evaporate, with volume. Microsoft is part of the HD-DVD group so HD-DVD will find a following, and probably good volume in the PC and game channels, just as Blu-ray will get their volume primarily from game machines initially.

Anyone who doesn't think there will be HD-DVD or Blu-Ray selling for under $100 by Christmas 2007, is probably going to be very, very, wrong.

What is the answer?

Buy two decks, that's one possibility, and certainly the idea will drive consumers crazy. Many think this will drastically slow down the switch from standard DVD.

I think the solution is elsewhere. There are already chipsets and all laser assemblies out there by companies like either Broadcomm or Conextant (can't remember which, but one is close to having chipset that will support both formats, and I read the other day, of some company with a laser system (dual?) that would could read both formats.

So, look for the solution to be single players that play both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. It's not a pretty solution, but if you end up a year from now, being able to buy a Blu-Ray for $99 or an HD-DVD for $99, or one that does both for $139, which one will you, and other consumers go after?

Bottom Line:

No winner. Both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray survive, and prosper, and the Consumer ends up with a whole new magnitude of image quality, and pays only a little extra for it. Of course it would be nice to not have this marketing war, but the consequences will prove to be minor.

What are the potential headaches of two formats, down the road?

Will Playstation3 owners have to also buy an HD-DVD player, and will X-Box people nee to buy Blu-Ray so they can all watch all the movies? For storage purposes, either works well in your computer or server to store data, but if it's in your laptop, gee will you only be able to play the percentage of movies supporting the format in your laptop?

Again, shouldn't be an issue. As soon as the studios realize both formats will survive, they will simply produce two versions - one blu-ray, one hd-dvd.

The only people this will really drive crazy, are the retailers. Just what Best Buy wants - to have to stock the same movie in both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. That's For the last half dozen years they have been carrying most titles in Widescreen and Full Screen. In other words, they'll get over it.

And life goes on, until we face the next technological crisis of the 21st century.

The questions you have to ask yourself, are:

How much am I willing to spend for a player? and

Are there enough movie titles that interest you to convince you make the move (and spend the bucks) now, rather than wait 3 or 6 or 12 months, while more titles come out, and prices of players plummet.

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